Vanee’s hunger strike


While reading the evening paper the other night I overheard a seemingly innocent exchange between my two-year-old grand daughter, Vanee and her mother.



Vanee: I will not eat my dinner if I am not given the chocolate.
Mother: Have your dinner first, and I’ll give you the chocolate.
Vanee: Show me the chocolate first.

This set my mind a-thinking, helped by the splash of news I was reading. My grand daughter threatened to go on a hunger strike to have her will! Much like that other hunger striker whose pictures were all over the papers, Vanee chose her objective, her victim, the timing and, to crown it all, her conditions.

The hunger striker wanted money, he chose to do so during the sacred fasting of Tai Poosam Cavadee, and in the style of Tirupatti, shaved his head to give it an extra religious cachet. His demands were not vague promises but, as reported in the press, a signed document no less.

I thought that our Vanee was being manipulative… but she was not alone. Ordinary people like us, the “peuple admirable” that we are, can be so easily moved by anybody who knows which sensitive string to our heart to pluck. 

I wondered how many takers would show up if there were an offer, duly advertised in the newspaper, for a monthly stipend of Rs 20,000 for the rest of one’s active life to anybody who would stay without food for some 13 days – and with the support ‘médiatisé’ of ex-Prime Ministers and ex-Presidents and other religious dignitaries during the carnival. I believe we would run out of the funds for the stipend.

Of course hunger strikes have a noble origin and was practised by noble hearts. Was it not Bharata in Valmiki’s Ramayana circa 700 BC who is recorded to have gone on a hunger strike to pressurize Lord Rama to go back to rule Ayodhya?

Mohandas Gandhi, with his lofty ideals, had recourse to hunger strikes against the British colonizers to send them packing. Others like Potti Sreeramlu used it and paid dearly with his life for the creation of Andra Pradesh. So also in the late 1980s did Thillipan and Mother Poopathy Kanapathypillai in Sri Lanka to pressurise the Sinhalese government to stop their persecution of the Tamil minority — again at the cost of their lives.

These days any Tom, Dick and Harry — and not to forget our dear Vanee — may hold our conscience hostage. This has to stop. And it has to begin with us stopping to let ourselves be manipulated. Those going on hunger strikes have planned way ahead and the more intelligent they are the better they are at it.

Let us consider what happens when somebody stops eating. To put it simply: during the first two days the body uses up the glucose — the energy provider — in our blood. Everything we eat is ultimately converted into glucose for energy and the surplus is turned by our liver into fat. After the glucose is used up, the marvel that our liver is starts converting the stored fat into glucose for use by the rest of our body; this usually goes on for three weeks. After three weeks, of course we do not die. The real ‘starvation mode’ then comes into play: we start ‘burning the furniture’ to get energy, and at the same time our metabolism tends to slow down. This process of self-consumption starts by burning up our muscles and then turns to our vital organs until these stop working; it is then that we die. This ‘starvation mode’ lasts between 21 days to 52 days.

In the 1980s the first of ten Paramilitary Irish Republican hunger strikers died after 66 days; the others died between 43 and 73 days. To last that long they have to take daily some 3 litres of fluids and a pinch of kitchen salt. Mahatma Gandhi, not to be confused with our local imitation, was wise to add some fresh lemon juice in his drink and avoided his hunger strike to go beyond 21 days. It is believed that the Turkish Marxists survived 300 days with vitamins and sugar added to their liquid diet.

All those who are aggrieved by the circus created around a hunger strike should demand for better mileage from those aspiring to intrude in our lives. A minimum performance of 21 days is needed for seriousness of purpose. Those who cannot stay the distance should not venture that way. Those who are not medically fit should abstain because they must be out of their mind to attempt this feat and if necessary certified of being of unsound mind. The World Medical Association’s Tokyo Declaration of 1975 will not be in disagreement with the government to force feed persons medically declared to be of unsound mind.


Mootoo C Swamy

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